Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week’s gospel reading picks up where last week’s left off, both literally and thematically. Jesus has just told his disciples that they ought not to expect gratitude for the services they provide in their ministries; anybody who works in the helping professions can probably attest to the practical truth of this advice. It is their job, Jesus told them, they are servants to the gospel now and to demand thanks from every life they touch would be both haughty and unrealistic. After this teaching our Lord, now on his way to Jerusalem, meets ten lepers, one of whom is a Samaritan and the other nine of whom we are supposed to assume are Jews. He heals them and instructs them to show themselves to the priests, in accordance with Levitical law. Upon realizing that Jesus had healed them, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks. Jesus’ advice to his disciples seems to have been prophetic.

I have often wondered what precisely went through the minds of the nine other lepers, the ones who didn’t give thanks, upon realizing they had been healed. I presume that they were probably taking the long walk to Jerusalem together, the Samaritan having taken off in the opposite direction to Mount Gerazim to see his own priests. I wonder if perhaps the nine were a little relieved to be rid of the Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans having rarely interacted except to bicker during this period of history, their “friendship”, as it were, was probably a case of misery loving company, and there are few things more miserable than leprosy. Samaritans prayed to the God of Israel just like the Jews, but they did it on the wrong mountain and they kept all nature of strange Assyrian customs. A dubious lot, indeed! Best to be rid of that one!

They were probably also rather anxious to get back to life as usual, their families and friends and farms. And we can hardly blame them. The sooner they could get checked out by the priest in Jerusalem the sooner they could be home after an absence of what could easily have been years. Besides, this Jesus character probably understood that they had important, unfulfilled obligations. He probably knew they appreciated it anyway. They might send a nice birthday card next Christmas to let Him know how things are going. Sound familiar?

I’ve clearly presented caricatures of nine raging ingrates, precisely because I think that Luke is, himself, presenting us with caricatures. This is why it is significant that the one who returns is a Samaritan. I think we are supposed to envision the nine as a group of profoundly needy people but with a disturbing sense of entitlement. Do we not often petition God with this same mindset? Do we not often receive the blessings of this life assuming that we have earned them by virtue of our hard work or our piety or simply the fact that we have been lucky enough to be blessed in the past?

The Samaritan comes into the world an outcast amongst the people of his own land by virtue of his birth, and so leprosy is but another factor contributing to a more general marginalization. When Jesus heals him, life remains far from ideal. It is precisely because of this that he is able to appreciate the kindness that Christ has afforded him. He gets a glimpse of the wondrous power of God who is the creator of all things and giver of all gifts. He is better able because of his circumstance to see that all things come from God and that it is only by his grace that we are sustained.

Ironically, the nine others don’t go back to perfect lives, either. They have their own struggles and difficulties. If they are not grateful for the tremendous gift Jesus gave them right after they were healed, how much less grateful will they be in a couple of years when they have all but forgotten their miraculous recovery due to other challenges in their lives. What’s more, they lack the kind of attitudes which open the way to the realization of the countless blessings which they also experience.

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” Here we begin to see what true gratitude looks like. It is not an issue of quid pro quo, as there is nothing, alas, that we could give, even our heartfelt worship, which is to the benefit of our God, who is perfectly complete in Himself. We have thankfully grown beyond burning offerings to sate vengeful gods, as our pagan ancestors did in the days of antiquity. No, the gratitude we are obliged to show God is somehow an end in itself.

It helps, I think, to have some knowledge of the original Greek text. The word in this passage that our English bibles translate as “thanked” is the word εύχαριστών, from which we derive the word “Eucharist.” We all know that our weekly celebration of the Eucharist is a profoundly meaningful act of faith. It is also the single most profound act of the kind of gratitude that we see in today’s gospel reading. We join the Samaritan, “praising God with a loud voice” as we join the company of heaven singing the Sanctus “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We join the Samaritan prostrating at the feet of Jesus as we kneel before his altar here. Just like the Samaritan, we are foreigners- we are foreigners entering the realm of the divine, living on the border of the holy, where, as one writer put it “(the) single most determinative aspect of our humanness, our finitude, is exposed. The presence of the Holy reminds us of our limits, our weaknesses, our death. Yet in this borderland we also know joy and transcendence and we experience life as Gift.” It is with the earnestness and humility of this Samaritan that we approach this altar here and the metaphorical altars in all of our lives. And it is when we do this with true thanksgiving, with εύχαριστώσ, that we can begin to see the work of God in us and through us.

“Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth? He takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts the poor from the ashes.” The psalmist gives us a picture of a God who is very present, who though lofty by nature meets us along the road, just as he did the lepers. Sometimes God meets us when we are most uncomfortable: when we are weak or poor or ill or sad. It is at these times that God may seem the most distant. But, it is during these times when we must try to not shut our eyes to God’s grace but rather gaze at its resplendent fullness which is illumined to us by the living Christ. And we must approach God with gratitude, bowing before the one who gives us himself.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.